Under current animal welfare laws, pig farmers in Sweden are required to ensure that sows that have just given birth are housed in separate stalls, where they are able to freely move around. Under present rules the emphasis is on ensuring that lactating sows are able to move and turn around within a defined space.
Consequently, the farrowing stalls must be equipped with both a feeding corner and a dedicated area where the piglets can safely rest under a heat lamp.
Tethers for restraining dry and farrowing sows were banned in Sweden in 1971, when it was shown that tethered sows were "afflicted with an extremely high incidence of traumatic injuries".
However, a report commissioned by the ministry in February 2014, and delivered in late January (2015), has found that despite the ample space and mobility provisions mandated under existing regulations, around 500,000 piglets die in Swedish stalls each year due to a range of primary causes.
The report attributed the main fatality causes to hypothermia, malnutrition and piglets being trampled to death under foot.
The new project, which is being run by Sveriges Grisföretagare (SGF), Sweden’s pig producers’ organisation, plans to trial several pig husbandry models widely used in Denmark in a bid to reduce piglet mortality rates.
The test project, which will involve more than 100,000 pigs, will feature smaller-sized stalls where sows are immobilised.
Initially, the test programme will be conducted at 12 selected host pig farms in Sweden. The farms will be supplied with smaller-sized farrowing crates. The test farms have been granted special exemption by the ministry to breach general pig welfare and animal care rules in order to trial new methods based on Danish models.
"Our farm animal protection laws are based on research from the mid-1980s. Times change, and the situation is different today. Such a high mortality is not acceptable. We have, in general, the world’s best animal husbandry practices in Sweden, and yet we have one of the world’s highest piglet mortality rates. This simply does not make sense," said Ingemar Olsson, chairman of the SGF.
According to Olsson the 500,000 piglets that die on pig farms in Sweden annually represents a mortality rate of 18%. The SGF is expected to complete its pilot-project in May, and forward tests results to the ministry in June 2015.